The Fight to Desegregate Berkeley’s Public Schools

By Gilbert G. Bendix
Friday December 29, 2006

Both my wife Selina and I were strong believers in public schools. It seems strange therefore that, when the time came in 1958, we became private school parents. There were three reasons. 

Our oldest, Erica, was born a month too late, and would have had to wait a full additional year to be admitted to kindergarten in the public school system. Also, the ‘neighborhood schools’ reflected the racial housing segregation. 

For that matter, it was the official policy of the school system to assign minority teachers only to schools in minority neighborhoods. Finally, Berkeley had been unable to pass either a school bond or a school tax measure, and the financial condition of the schools affected our perception of their educational potential. 

Why couldn’t a great center of learning, like Berkeley, pass a school bond? Of course it required a two-thirds majority, but should that be a problem in Berkeley? It was, and parents were determined to get to the bottom of this. Analysis of the election results showed that West Berkeley, where the minority population was located, was our Achilles heel. The home owners of West Berkeley figured that the all-white school board would spend the tax money exclusively in the white hills schools. Berkeley’s liberals decided to change that. 

At the next election, we fielded full slates of candidates for both the City Council and the school board, including an African-American, then called Negro, on each slate. We swept that election and ended Republican rule of Berkeley. After that, school-funding measures passed without difficulty. 

The new school board had more than adequate funding on its agenda. It agreed with the United States Supreme Court that ‘separate, but equal’ education is never equal, and we gradually moved to desegregate the schools, first the junior high schools, then the elementary schools. I testified before the board at each of the stages, arguing that my white children would get a better education if exposed to children of wider backgrounds. 

There were bumps in the road. Opponents of desegregation forced a recall election against some of the school board members, threatening a white exodus from Berkeley unless desegregation was stopped. The recall failed. 

The final elementary school desegregation plan was adopted in 1966 and was scheduled to go into effect a year later. Some children from the Columbus School area in West Berkeley would attend Oxford School through third grade, and children from the Oxford area would attend Columbus from fourth to sixth grades. 

I was on the Oxford PTA intergroup relations committee. We were trying to think of ways to smooth the transition, finding ways for the children from the two schools to meet each other before that day little more than a year away. I went home and suggested to Selina that we run a Saturday morning science club, with an equal number of kids from each school. 

We were in possession of school microscopes, boxes of components for building electric circuits, and a variety of other suitable supplies. Selina liked the idea, and so did the Oxford PTA. One of the other mothers owned a VW Microbus and offered to act as chauffeur and to bring apple juice and cookies to each session. Columbus PTA was approached, and they arranged for the Columbus teachers’ lunchroom to be used for our club. Selina and I decided to set the grade level at third grade. Since our youngest was at that stage, we knew just what to expect. 

The science club was a big success. Of course, we only drew kids who were already enthusiastic about science, so we didn’t deserve any medals. But what about social mixing? Well, the children seemed to team up without regard to skin color, but the boys tended to congregate at one end of the room and the girls at the other. What in the world can you expect from a bunch of eight-year olds? 

Did school desegregation achieve its desired ends? I’m not prepared to say. Yes, race relations have improved. No, we’re still a very divided society, in Berkeley as in the rest of the country. Maybe, if there had been several hundred little clubs throughout the city instead of our one, maybe a glee club here and a sewing bee there, things might have worked out better. I can dream, can’t I?